Trying to wash the bad taste of Slumdog Millionaire from my mind, what a relief to turn to the India of classic Satyajit Ray. Ray's work has been highly regarded ever since the release in the West of Pather Panchali (1955), the first film of the Apu Trilogy, I think because it was the first time audiences had seen Indians in a film in which they were not singing and dancing like lunatics. Aside from their novelty (beautiful women in saris, adorned with bracelets and anklets, and dots on their foreheads), Ray's films were informed with what can only be called - for a Westerner - an alien understanding of pacing and rhythm, which is also reflected in traditional Indian music.(1) I would not go so far as John Simon and blame Indian culture itself for the sense of unrelenting lassitude in Ray's films. Ray was evidently making no effort to be authentic - he did not have to. The problem, which Ray understood too well, was in trying to be too authentic, too idiosyncratic, which puts a film in danger of being parochial.
The theme of so many of Ray's films is one person's, man or woman, wishing to escape the confines of a village, a family or a narrow circle of friends into the broader world of opportunity and recognition. Charulata (1964) is based on a novel by Tagore that has the feel of a story by Turgenev or Henry James, about trapped lives and unspoken love. It concerns the neglected young wife of a Calcutta newspaper publisher who, without meaning to, falls for her brother-in-law. Set in the late 19th century, Ray manages to subtly capture the setting of the story, a society that Tagore knew well - educated merchants and entrepreneurs, of scholars and poets who are familiar with their rich culture and with the anti-British political sentiments in The Sentinel, Charlulata's husband's small-circulation newspaper. They speak a Bengali that is liberally sprinkled with English.
There is a garden scene which is justly famous whose beauty may only have been the consequence of the rest of the film being so cooped up in what must have been a stifling house. (2) Charu, as she is called by her husband, sits on a swing in the garden and Ray indulges in an exquisite shot with the camera rocking to a fro with her.(3) When she stops and studies the garden and the world beyond through opera glasses, she spies a woman and child on a distant balcony and is reminded of her childless marriage. The relationship, as always in Indian cinema, is left to be inferred. There is one tearful embrace between Charu and Amal, but it amounts to nothing. Everything is left to the actors' eyes and their gestures, which is handled surprisingly well by Ray.
The acting is excellent from the two male principle actors, Soumitra Chatterjee, who was Ray's alter-ego in fifteen of his films, as Amal and Shailen Mukherjee as Bhupati. Madhabi Mukherjee, however, is merely competent as Charulata, which is unfortunate but does not hurt the film overmuch. The ending is indelible: Bhupati, Charu's husband, has come back after discovering her feelings for his brother. When Charu opens the door, she holds out her hand and tells him to come in. But when he holds out his own hand, Ray freezes the shot. We then see the couple, frozen in a tentative gesture of reconciliation, from other angles - of Charulata beckoning to her husband to come in the door. It has a startling and somewhat terrifying aspect, of being suspended in a moment in time in which characters hang in indecision, that could have different outcomes if only the film were permitted to advance just a few more seconds further.
But the film has, I think, dated drastically - not so much because it is in black-and-white or because of its technical shortcomings. What has dated Charulata is its very qualities as a work of art - its boldness and its confidence, not just in its own creative power, but in an audience, now long gone, that will fully and appreciatively comprehend it. I once compared it to listening to John Coltrane. Such filmmaking required a degree of fearlessness that is by now as dead as a doornail.
(1) The great Ravi Shankar often composed the music for Ray's films. Incidentally, Shankar is the father of Nora Jones. For Charulata, Ray himself composed an effective, understated score.
(2) I live in the Philippines, and I have visited Thailand - neither of which, I am assured, is as hot as India.
(3) Memorably, Jan Troell uses the same camera shot in The Emigrants (1971).